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A model for how to spend federal money on early education already exists

Teacher Tara Autobee helps children paint in a toddler classroom at Life Center Academy in Pueblo, Colo. Even children who are not funded by the Early Head Start program have access to higher-quality classrooms at the center. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)

BRUSH, Colo. — Donna Araujo has been a fixture in this rural community for two decades. Beyond fixing pigtails, wiping runny noses and mediating disagreements between toddlers, she’s been providing crucial child care for families in a town with such a scarcity of options, it qualifies as a “child-care desert.”

For most of her 20 years running Nana’s Kiddo Kastle out of her home in a modest neighborhood a mile off Interstate 76 , 90 miles northeast of Denver, her focus was on the basics. She spent her days teaching the ABCs, reading stories and making sure kids were safe.

Then, in March 2020, Araujo was at a meeting with other local child-care center owners when she heard about a program that could give her access to federal Early Head Start funds. The program promised to help her ramp up the quality of her center, at little to no cost. She would receive the federal money through a state grantee, the Colorado-based nonprofit Early Learning Ventures, which would provide additional funding for some of the lower-income kids enrolled in her program, increasing her insufficient salary. And the nonprofit would help with other quality improvement efforts, like providing funds to enable Araujo to buy a curriculum and supplies, expand her classroom and even further her education.

Araujo jumped at the opportunity. Within a year-and-a-half, she had earned her child development credential. She started taking college classes on infant and toddler development, and rolled out her first-ever curriculum for the children in her care. After 18 years of running her business out of a small, 10-foot by 12-foot room off the back of her house, she used federal funds to double the size of the classroom and add a bathroom. She was also able to pave her frequently-muddy driveway, giving kids more room to play and ride bikes.

Her income nearly doubled.

“When I first signed on with them, it was like, ‘Is this really too good to be true?’ ” Araujo said on an October afternoon as toddlers napped around her. “It’s amazing.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which is headed to the Senate after a narrow victory in the House, would lower the amount of money families pay for child care, raise the wages of workers, provide funding to build out the supply of child-care institutions and establish universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, among other things. For years, the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program has been solving many of the problems the plan is attempting to address.

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Since 2014, the partnership program has poured federal funds into established child-care programs that serve low-income children, including the most popular nonparental form of infant and toddler care: home-based care. Home providers can’t always access other child-care funding streams, but the partnership program has helped boost quality and provide stability for independent child-care programs, while at the same time expanding access to high-quality child-care slots for infants and toddlers, even in rural, resource-deprived parts of the country considered child-care deserts — places like Brush.

The partnership demonstrates what is possible when child-care programs receive adequate federal investment and multifaceted support. Experts and educators say the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program could serve as a model, showing states how to design systems to better support child-care programs and raise quality — assuming states get more funding under Biden’s plan.

Child care in America has long been a fractured system, due in large part to a lack of federal investment. Programs are woefully underfunded and many child-care workers live in poverty. Parents struggle to pay for care and many cannot find it, especially for their youngest children. There are only enough licensed spots for 23 percent of infants and toddlers in the country according to data collected before the pandemic shuttered many centers.

For the past 56 years, one of the most consistent federal investments in early learning has been through the Head Start program, which was created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Early Head Start was created under the Head Start umbrella in 1995 to expand the organization’s assistance to infants, toddlers, pregnant individuals and expectant families. Each year, more than 1 million low-income children and their families receive free high-quality child care focused on school-readiness, health screenings, meals, and comprehensive family-support services through Head Start and its affiliated programs.

While the quality of Head Start classrooms can vary, research on Head Start and Early Head Start generally shows the programs can improve cognitive and social-emotional development, kindergarten readiness and high school graduation rates. Children who attend Head Start programs are more likely to receive dental checkups, have fewer child welfare encounters during elementary school and are less likely to end up in foster care.

But in 2021, there were only enough Head Start slots for 36 percent of eligible 3-to-5-year-olds; only 11 percent of eligible infants and toddlers had access to an Early Head Start program.

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Expanding access to Early Head Start was one of the original goals of the partnership program when it launched during the Obama administration in 2014. The program has received ongoing, bipartisan support from Congress since its inception: In 2018, lawmakers increased funding for the program by $150 million, and added another $100 million in March 2021 to expand it in 32 states and Puerto Rico. (Grant recipients must raise a 20 percent match of their award in nonfederal funds.)

About 33,500 children receive child care funded by the partnership.

The federal funding layers on top of tuition or state subsidies for low-income children. On average, the amount Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership providers receive from the program is twice as much as the amount they get from their states for taking care of low-income children. Unlike some state subsidy programs, the partnership program pays providers based on enrollment numbers, not attendance, ensuring they receive steady funding even when a child is absent.

Program participants also receive substantial funding up front to pay for facility improvements, toys and supplies, as needed. And they have access to frequent coaching, wraparound services for children and families, and opportunities for teacher education and training.

While some of these measures — like specific funding to boost quality and improve facilities — are included in the Build Back Better plan, others are not. States may be on their own to roll out offerings that providers say have been helpful, like coaching for infant and toddler teachers, and wraparound services for enrolled families.

These supports can have the greatest impact for family child-care providers, many of whom are isolated, said Cara Sklar, deputy director of early and elementary policy at the nonprofit New America.

“It’s often a woman in her own home, operating almost completely on her own, aside from a few monitoring visits from her state that are about health and safety,” Sklar said. The Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships “brought all of these supports to family child care.”

In Colorado, most of the child-care programs working with Early Learning Ventures have almost doubled their revenue since joining the partnership, said Sue Renner, executive director of the David & Laura Merage Foundation, which launched Early Learning Ventures in 2008 and became an Early Head Start-Child Care partnership grantee in 2015. The nonprofit has received two financial grants from the federal government for the partnership program, and funded 489 infants and toddlers Early Head Start spots across Colorado in 2020.

“You watch this and I’m thinking, this is a no-brainer,” Renner said. “Why aren’t we doing way more of this?”

The benefits of bringing Early Head Start to child-care programs nationwide have been marked: A 2019 report found more than 80 percent of child-care programs participating in the partnership offered children developmental assessments and other screenings, which can be critical for catching disabilities and developmental delays at an early age. About three quarters of the programs referred children to services like medical and dental care. More than half of partnership programs offered mental health or health services for families of enrolled children.

“I think it is one of the most promising things we have done in taking something to scale in this country,” said Linda Smith, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Development Initiative. “If child-care providers have the resources and support, then they can produce high-quality care,” said Smith, who also helped develop the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program when it launched seven years ago. “For the most part, they just lack the money to do things that need to be done for infants and toddlers.”

This story about Early Head Start was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.